It’s the choice that millions of car buyers have to make each year. Do I buy a brand-new ride or should I opt for an older car and save a few bucks? I’ll take used, say millions of Americans. Previously owned vehicles outsold new ones by more than 1 million last year, says the National Automobile Dealers Association. Those figures don’t even include private owner sales, so the actual number is much higher.

With new vehicles averaging over $25,000, according to the American Automobile Manufacturer’s Association, those numbers are no surprise. But let’s say your Uncle Guido left you a big inheritance, so money is not an obstacle. You just want to get your money’s worth when you go car shopping. Here’s what you must consider.

Fewer problems, more choice

Purchasing a new car obviously lessens the risk of getting stuck with repair problems, especially since just about any dealer will give you some type of protective warranty. You won’t have to be guessing whether some Mario Andretti wannabe was burning rubber on your tires.

Also, finding the car model you want in your favorite color will probably be an easier task through a new car dealership than through Stan’s House of Used Clunkers. Never mind the fact that you can’t beat that way cool feeling of driving your dream machine with that new car smell still lingering in the air.

Last but not least, you’ll likely get a better interest rate on a new car loan than you would on a used car loan. For the most part, the difference will range between 2 percent and 3 percent if you have good credit, but can go as high as 4 percent or 5 percent for some models. Bankrate.com is a great source for finding the best car loan rates.

Value for resale?

But what about those stories you’ve heard regarding new cars depreciating by thousands the moment you drive them off the lot? Unfortunately, it’s true. “The average vehicle loses at least 20 percent to 25 percent of its value the minute you drive off the lot,” says Jon Quade, an automotive industry consultant for AutoMotivators in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

Looking into which cars hold their value longer will help you in a resale later. A couple of good sources for pricing information are Edmund’s Automobile Buyer’s Guides and Consumer Reports‘ new car hotline at (800) 888-8275). Consumer Reports also provides used car prices at (800) 258-1169.

Should I buy used?

So what about used cars? What do they offer you that new vehicles don’t? Well, a much lower sticker price for one thing. In 2001, the average used car sold for $11,000 less than the average new car, according to NADA.

Also, many pre-owned cars carry slightly lower insurance rates, titling fees and sales taxes. “You’re paying less on insurance because the car is less expensive, not because it’s any safer,” says Bob Elliston, author of “What Car Dealers Won’t Tell You.”

But buying used won’t cut down your costs on the dealer’s markup, which NADA says is usually 10 times lower for new cars. Elliston goes even further than NADA by saying that markups on used cars may be as high as 400 percent. Dealer’s markup for new cars “can range from as low as 10 percent to as high as 20 percent for luxury cars,” he says. “Every dealer also has a different sales commission plan, so you shouldn’t be worrying about that. It’s more important that you find out exactly what the factory put in that car so you know what you should be paying for it,” advises Elliston. He adds that the lower the markup cost, the more likely the dealer is trying to unload the vehicle.

The continuing rise in car prices has caused consumers to search for ways to lower their monthly payments. As a result, drivers have frequently turned to low-cost leases as an alternative to buying.

Try a previously leased car

Lessees generally only keep their cars for two to three years before trading them in. According to statistics, more than 3.3 million cars will come off leases this year. This is good news for used car buyers — the market is being flooded by low-mileage, off-lease cars.

Buying a quality off-lease car can be a good value for your money. For example, the suggested retail price for a 2001 Ford Mustang is $23,330. However, you could get an off-lease 1998 Mustang with only 30,000 miles for under $15,000. The car will still have several good years left in it if properly maintained, and you’d be saving roughly $8,000 of your hard earned cash. Many of those cars have manufacturer warranties available, although you’ll pay extra for one.

Do the research

Whether you decide to buy new or used, remember that doing good research on the vehicle is the most important element in getting a great buy. That research should include checking a particular model’s safety record and insurance costs. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has valuable crash test safety information.

You also need to check the vehicle’s maintenance record. Did the previous owner take good care of it, or did he trash it worse than a rock band’s hotel room? Bringing the car to a trusted professional mechanic for a check-up is still a good precaution to take before closing any deal. If you’re not buying from a dealer then it’s especially important that the inspection be a very thorough one.

It should include a brake check, engine test and charging system test. You can expect to pay about $100 for the mechanic’s efforts, but it’s well worth it. Most private sellers won’t normally offer you a warranty, so you could wind up paying a bundle in repair costs if the car is a lemon.

Also, make sure that the car you’re buying has not been subject to a factory recall. You can call the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration at (800) 424-9393 to check on that model’s recall history.

Once you’ve established that the car is in good condition, be sure to shop around with other sellers to see if you’re really getting a good deal. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask other people who’ve owned similar cars how they liked them. See you in the fast lane.